Newark school workers have managed to keep a weekly vegetable distribution going even during the pandemic. From left: Marquise Singleton, the parent liaison at Hawthorne Avenue School; Erica Walker, an early childhood social worker; and Dwayne Tatum, parent liaison at George Washington Carver School. Courtesy of Marquise Singleton
On any given Friday before the pandemic, families across Newark would flock to their local school to fetch fresh vegetables.
“Zucchini, carrots, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts — the list goes on,” said Dwayne Tatum, the parent liaison at George Washington Carver Elementary, one of dozens of district schools that gave donated produce to families each week. “Any vegetable you can think of has passed through us.”
Then came the coronavirus, which shuttered Newark schools last month and left the free vegetable giveaway that had been available at more than 30 city schools in limbo. The disruption could not have come at a worse time. The pandemic has kept many residents out of work and short on food. Meanwhile, many food pantries are struggling to meet the surging demand.
So school employees who ran the weekly vegetable distribution came up with a solution: They moved their operations to nearby church lots, where residents now can walk up or drive through to pick up the produce. Tatum and other volunteers are even delivering the vegetables to families who can’t leave their homes.
“Whenever we hear about a family that needs food, we make sure they get it,” said Tatum, who loads leftover vegetables into his large pick-up truck and delivers them to families identified by the school social worker.
The volunteer effort to keep the produce giveaway going is just one example of school workers improvising in order to maintain the critical services that schools provide even when buildings are closed and students are stuck at home. Attendance workers are still tracking down missing students, counselors continue to offer social-emotional support, and teachers and still assigning work and giving lessons — though all those efforts now happen remotely, through phone calls, texts, and video chats.
But making sure children and families are fed is paramount in a city where more than 80% of district students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school and more than 28,000 children live in households that receive food assistance.
One of the groups supplying food to Newark is Table to Table, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that collects excess produce, meat, and bread from supermarkets and food-distribution companies and delivers it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Last year, the organization delivered enough donated food for 26 million meals.
More than half of its shipments go to Newark, where there is an abundance of need — along with groups eager to help, said Julie Kinner, the organization’s director of recipient relations and community affairs.
“It’s incredible to me how often I hear from people in Newark,” she said. “Not from individuals needing food, but from people who can serve it.”
For several years, Table to Table has sent donated food to Newark schools that act as distribution sites. One of the people who hatched the partnership was Joan-Marie Foushee’, a support staffer at Central High School who also leads a South Ward nonprofit. Every Friday for the past four years, Central has given out the fresh produce to community members, students, and staffers. As word got out and other schools asked to join, Foushee’ agreed to share the vegetables on one condition.
“If you want us at your school, you have to adopt three other schools,” she said. Before long, other schools were acting as distribution hubs, giving portions of their Table to Table shipments to other schools so that the giveaway kept growing.
When the pandemic shut down school buildings, Foushee’ and others were determined not to let the vegetable distribution vanish. Several local churches agreed to let the volunteers set up makeshift pantries on their sites. Central moved to Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, Mount Vernon School relocated to Cornerstone Baptist Church, and Carver shifted to Community Church of God.
LeKeshea Brooks-Wertz is a school social worker who helped run the vegetable distribution at John F. Kennedy School, which enrolls students with multiple disabilities. When the coronavirus struck, she wasn’t sure how her work could continue.
“When they said school was closing, I was like, ‘What’s my role? What am I going to do to be helpful?’” she said. She decided to start loading up her truck with grab-and-go meals from schools and delivering them to homebound families. On Fridays, she includes vegetables from Pleasant Grove church.
“God didn’t bless me with this car for myself,” she said. “He blessed me so I could help other people.”
At the Community Church of God, a small army of volunteers gathers each Friday to unload and bag Table to Table’s shipments, which have included pallets of fresh produce, hundreds of gallons of milk from Barlett Dairy, and meal kits from HelloFresh. Community members can pick up food bags themselves, or register online for a home delivery by Douglas and Maggie Freeman, siblings and South Ward community activists who have helped spearhead the vegetable distribution.
Along with Tatum and the Freemans, one of the site leaders is Singleton, the parent liaison at Hawthorne Avenue School. Before the pandemic, Singleton organized a vegetable giveaway at his school on Fridays — sometimes with help from his mother and grandmother, who live in the neighborhood — and a “Parent Cafe” on Mondays with donated pastries from a Panera Bread in Clifton, about 15 miles from Hawthorne.
Singleton picked up the vegetables and pastries in his Volkswagen Jetta, which he calls “The Hawthorne Car” because he uses it so frequently for work. Now he uses it to deliver vegetables to families who can’t leave their homes, along with Chromebook laptops to students who need them for virtual learning.
“I maybe bit off more than I can chew, but I’ll take care of it,” he said. “Just to see the smiles — that’s what keeps me going.”
Singleton has recruited a crew of parent volunteers for the Friday food giveaway, which he asked Hawthorne teachers to advertise to families on Google Classroom and in messaging apps. One of the volunteers is Andria Belcher, who has five children, including two who attend Hawthorne.
After losing her job at Newark Liberty International Airport due to the shutdown, Belcher relies on the vegetables to help feed her own family. Yet she also wanted to help her neighbors.
“There’s so many of us that are struggling,” she said. So when Singleton invited her to volunteer at the church, she didn’t hesitate. “Every Friday, I’m there.”
The free vegetable distribution happens each Friday at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church (198 Chadwick Ave.) from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and at Community Church of God (13 Grant Ave.) from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. For more info, email [email protected]
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
GOING ROGUE: Last Sunday, during a 'Meet the Press' panel discussion, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a surrogate for President Obama's re-election campaign, praised Obama's record but went off-message when he scolded the Obama campaign for negative ads.
On Monday night, I was out with friends when my pal Outlaw told me about another person there who’d made some less than flattering comments about him. Here’s the thing: Outlaw is my friend. This random guy running his mouth was not. So from there I went on to joke about the stranger, making assessments about his overall character and so forth. Then Outlaw laughed and said, “We can’t really speculate on who he is based on this one comment he made about me. You’re just saying all that stuff because you’re my friend.”
I replied, “Of course I am, duh! That’s what friends do.”
And I mean it. I believe that’s what friends are for: to love you unconditionally and support you when you need it. When your friend gets cheated on and calls you, your job is to pick her side and provide comfort. Now, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that pesky thing called accountability. When you’re wrong, your friends should tell you and hold you accountable. But when you’re in a fight –particularly physical ones — you expect your friends to jump in and sort out the details later. Right?
Well, it seems the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker, was in a bit of a quandary. I’m sure you’ve heard of him, but if not … Mayor Booker is a progressive young politician who enjoys immense popularity in his hometown and across the country. Many believe he has the potential to hold an even higher position, maybe even president! While he’s managed to appease liberals and conservatives alike in his home city, he primarily moves rank and file with President Obama and has been an outspoken and helpful backer of the Obama administration. When the President voiced his support of same-sex marriage, Cory Booker took to his Twitter feed (as he often does) to applaud and agree. One could say that Mayor Booker and President Obama are pretty chummy.
That was until Mr. Booker was interviewed on Meet the Press last week. Mayor Booker called the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, “ridiculous” and “nauseating.” In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll let you take a look below.
When I saw Mayor Booker’s comments flicker across my timeline, I thought that I was surely misreading it. I mean, it’s one thing for lil ol’ me to disagree with President Obama (I do so pretty often, actually), but I’m not the President’s pal; I’m not an elected official; I’m not a leading voice in the Democratic party; and I don’t have anything close to Cory Booker’s 1,150,727 followers.
However, when Mayor Booker calls out the Obama campaign’s tactics, it makes us wonder … was it the right thing to do? The media recognized the spectacle right away, declaring that Booker had gone “rogue” and speculating on how damaging his words would be to the Obama campaign. After Booker released a personal video in a desperate attempt to clarify his comments, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough even suggested that Booker is “fighting for his political life.”
From my perspective, this controversy ultimately goes back to those old conflicting questions about friendship. Should Mayor Booker have stuck to his guns and his morals that said, “The political discourse has gone too far, we’ve got to get above the nasty fighting and stay above the fray?” Or should he have stood by his friend and fellow statesman who’s running in a tight race against a man that Mayor Booker surely doesn’t want to win the presidency?
It’s a tough call and one we often have to make in our personal lives. Do you stand by your friend even when you disagree with her cheating on her nice yet gullible boyfriend? Or do you call her on it and threaten to expose her if she doesn’t shape up and act right?
In this case, I too have some critical feedback for the Obama campaign’s tactics. The emails I’m getting from the Democratic National Committee often sound as divisive as a Fox News personality, and there’s an ad out that compares Mitt Romney to a vampire for “sucking jobs away from a steel town.” That type of rhetoric is polarizing and doesn’t resonate with the inspiring picture of our president that draws voters together. Perhaps Obama’s campaign does need to take a couple chill pills. However, I believe Mayor Booker could have expressed his concerns to the campaign without necessarily sharing them with the world. I can’t say for sure if the mayor already tried to do this and had to resort to airing his concerns on Meet the Press, but think about it this way: Drawing on the previous example, if your friend is cheating on her boyfriend, do you tell her to get right via Twitter or over a one-on-one brunch? Obviously, the personal, less-public option is the only way to go if you have any interest in preserving the friendship.
So, Mayor Booker, I agree with what you said; I just question if the setting was right.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s campaign now has a new star in their most recent attack ads against President Obama — the one and only Honorable Mayor Cory Booker.
Who. Woulda. Thunk?
If nothing else, this little episode tells us we should be gearing up for an ugly presidential election. Which is exactly what Cory Booker was trying to avoid.
Superhero Mayor: Newark Mayor Cory Booker saves neighbor from fiery blaze.
A “come to Jesus moment” is how the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker, described the experience of saving his neighbor from a fiery blaze last night. “I feel a sense of gratitude today to God that I’m here and still feeling kind of like I had my proverbial ‘come to Jesus’ moment in my life,” Booker said at a press conference today.
The New Jersey Star-Leger reported that the fire started “shortly before the mayor arrived home after a television interview” last night and that “five people were taken to the hospital for treatment: the mayor, a woman from the house and three members of his security detail.” Booker was treated for smoke inhalation and second-degree burns to his hand. The neighbor was listed in stable condition this morning at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, with burns to her back and neck, according to The Star-Ledger.
Booker said he did not feel “bravery,” but “terror” when he thought he might not find the woman or get out of the house alive, even though he had pulled rank on the security detail who tried to stop him from executing a citizen rescue. “I really feel thankful to God, because just when I was falling down, trying to find somewhere to breathe, I finally heard her and found an opening where I could grab her,” Booker said. “Today is a surreal day for me. Everything has taken on a sense of depth to it. I think sometimes the biggest gratitude in life is to be able to put your feet on the ground and look at the world and say I’m still here. I’m very, very happy that this family that’s been so good to me over the years, that they’re all safe and sound.”
In response to the mayor’s heroism, The Atlantic published a “Super Mayor” quiz, Mashable posted a funny superhero mashup, and a Twitter meme broke out under the hashtag #corybookerstories. It included tweets like: “When Chuck Norris has nightmares, Cory Booker turns on the light & sits with him until he falls back asleep,” by @MilesGrant, “Cory Booker doesn’t tap into the Force, the Force taps into Cory Booker,” by @LordPalpatine, and “After the incident, Smoke was treated for Cory Booker exposure,” by @ZandarVTS.
I added my own tweet, which said, “@CoryBooker stopped to pick up my pen after delivering State of the City 2012, LOL.” It was no joke. I took note of the mayor’s kindness in the midst of the rollicking public event at which I conducted an on-the-fly interview with him for UrbanFaith because it struck me as a demonstration of habitual, unconscious selflessness when he did it. The parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants in Matthew 25: 14-28 came to mind then and again this morning when I heard news of his heroism. In the parable, the servant who has been faithful in the small things is affirmed by the Lord and put in charge of many. This is one more Cory Booker story that makes me wonder what God has in store for the passionate, energetic mayor of Newark—especially now that he’s lived through what he describes as a real-life “come to Jesus” moment.
NEW JERSEY STAR: Newark Mayor Cory Booker is often compared to President Barack Obama because of his youthful charisma, Ivy League pedigree, and post-racial persona. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, talks (and tweets) about his Christian faith as readily and comfortably as any pastor. If there’s a major theme that I’ve discerned in his prolific faith tweets it’s “walk the talk.” He shows little patience for religious utterances in the absence of love-directed action.
I’ve been trying to schedule an interview with Booker for a year, ever since we engaged in a brief direct message conversation about coffee on Twitter last April. He replied to my initial interview request with a DM that said, “I hope we can talk soon. I’d enjoy the conversation.” In June, after I inquired again, he gave me a number to call and said he’d try to make it happen. Since then, I’ve exchanged encouraging emails with his press liaisons, but the interview never happened. Meanwhile, I’d see Booker tweeting about his latest appearance on one national television news broadcast after another and eventually realized if I wanted to talk to him, I’d have to make it happen myself. So, I decided to attend his 2012 “State of the City” address at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center March 1. When I requested a press pass from his staff via email, I asked for five minutes of his time after the event and was told I could have it.
A Day in the Life
My cameraman and I drove the hour and fifteen minutes to Newark on that promise, arriving a few minutes late to the 6:30 p.m. address because of traffic diversions related to the event. Although we didn’t see them, NJ.com reported that 100 people, mostly from the Newark Teacher’s Union, were outside protesting the mayor’s plan to close seven public schools.
As Booker spoke (with members of the Newark Municipal Council seated behind him on stage), a woman two rows in front of us argued with him so relentlessly from her seat that people turned around to tell her to be quiet, one even quoting from the book of Ecclesiastes in his rebuke. Another audience member countered her jeers with cheers throughout Booker’s speech. Two council members walked off stage after Booker called out council members for failing to reduce salaries and staff when the city had laid off 25 percent of its work force and then challenged the council to act on the deterioration of the city’s water supply infrastructure. Booker looked toward them and said, “If you can’t take the heat.” One of the council members told NJ.com “moments” after leaving the stage that Booker was lying. Through it all, the mayor stayed on message. When a pastor from New Hope Baptist Church offered a benediction, he bowed his head in prayer. Then, in a private room upstairs, he fielded questions from reporters.
For every one he was asked, Booker offered a long, passionate response. The press conference ended sometime around 9:00 pm and he was still going strong. His staff, however, was lagging. They looked tired. I was tired. The liaison who had promised me five minutes with the mayor was overruled in that moment by a senior aide. Eyeing me with apparent irritation, she said I could ask one question, not the five I had prepared. When I introduced myself and UrbanFaith to the mayor, there was no hint of recognition, but he smiled and said he could use some “urban faith.”
A day’s worth of research was whittled down to this: “Why do you think you don’t get punished the way other politicians do for talking about your faith and grounding your public service in faith?”
“I think the fundamental of the faith is humility, and you need to talk about it with that humble heart. I believe God is the infinite. How can I, as a finite person, ever have a conception of what God’s grace, God’s glory, is? That means recognizing that God’s truth might lie also in other faiths. And that means actually taking the time to study those faiths. I’ve studied Judaism. I’ve studied Hinduism. I’ve worked with an Islamic leader here to learn more about the Quran. I think you really can’t love someone as Christ called me to do unless you know them, unless you take the time to respect them and understand them. How can you do that without knowledge? So, I often worry that people use faith more as a bludgeon to hurt or to hit or to condemn rather than to use faith in a way to embrace, to love more deeply, to love more richly. That’s what I try to do in my public dialogue about faith, to use it as a door opener, not as one that slams or divides,” Booker said.
With the senior aide looming, there was no opportunity to follow up, to ask him how his statement about multiple sources of religious truth meshes with exclusivity claims not only in his own religion, but in others. The press liaison asked me if I was satisfied. I frowned. She said perhaps I could ask a couple more questions on the way out. It was the senior aide’s turn to frown, but she acquiesced. So, as we walked toward two flights of steps, I told the mayor I had read that the city’s first public school for boys was announced at Metropolitan Baptist Church that day as a public-private collaboration. He smiled again and nodded enthusiastically. I said the mayor of New York City had been in trouble with some church leaders recently for his unwillingness to repeal a Board of Education policy there that prohibits religious groups from meeting in public schools. In light of these differences in approach, I asked what his thoughts are on church/state separation.
Booker said he didn’t know enough about the New York City situation to comment on it specifically, but offered this: “As long as there’s free access for everybody, whether you’re a Christian group, a Muslim group, Bahá’í group, I think those are public spaces and we should allow people to use them as long as they’re not doing it in a way that undermines the freedom and the liberties of other groups. … In general, I think auditoriums and things like that should be used for the public. People should have open access to them. If a Muslim group wants access to that auditorium to hold something, as long as everybody else is on the same footing, I think that’s fine.”
As we moved down the stairs in lockstep with his staff, I asked about the role of faith groups in Newark, particularly their contributions to crime prevention and reduction, because he had told reporters that these groups are vital to those efforts.
“There’s tremendous, tremendous leadership from the faith community around crime, tremendous involvement. I just feel blessed by the religious communities here in Newark. They’re very, very involved in public safety, in the arts, in every aspect of our city really, education. It’s just great,” he said.
I dropped my recorder at the base of the stairs. The mayor bent down to pick it up. I thanked him for that kindness and for answering my truncated list of questions. He replied politely and kept moving towards a waiting SUV. Another aide told him he did well as he got into the vehicle. He thanked her and was gone.
I didn’t get to ask Booker about his vocal support for same-sex marriage. I wanted to know if it is grounded in his understanding of civil rights or something more personal and how faith groups respond to this part of his platform. In January, after Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey and suggested the issue should instead be decided by referendum, Booker argued from civil rights history that “we should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote.” Still, there are those unanswered questions.
Whitney Houston funeral guest shows his program to journalists (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Whitney Houston’s family achieved the near-impossible for themselves and for her. They managed to hold a private “home-going service” for the superstar, and did so, in part, by graciously broadcasting that service to the world.
The setting was an unlikely one, dotted as the neighborhood is with abandoned and half-built buildings. An exceptional, appropriate silence prevailed throughout a wide perimeter around the church. Local gangs reportedly even called a truce in Houston’s honor.
When I spoke to Rev. Howard in preparation for my reporting, he expressed concern that fans would forget that, although Houston was a public figure, her untimely death is fundamentally a family tragedy.
“If people have any kind of dignity and compassion, if they truly love Whitney Houston in the best sense of the word, they won’t go clamoring at the church, knowing they have no invitation,” Howard had said.
Perhaps fans did, in fact, love her enough to stay away, because there were no crowds—only a couple hundred journalists, a significant police presence, and handfuls of fans keeping vigil several blocks away as limousines and luxury cars came and went.
The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, has known the Houston family for decades. He shared his memories of the woman he called “Nippy” at CNN.com and provided commentary for the network with Soledad O’Brien, Piers Morgan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the service got underway.
When I spoke to Rev. Soaries Friday evening, he said his ministry to grieving families is informed by his own painful experience of having lost his father suddenly when he was only 24 years old. Because of his father’s stature as a minister in their community, other clergymen came to visit him and his family in the days after his father’s death. None sought to comfort or pray with him, he said. Instead they tried to influence who would preach the funeral. When the time came, minister after minister got up to speak until Soaries passed a note to the emcee saying the family would leave if these men didn’t stop their “foolishness.”
“It was clear to me that their presentations had nothing to do with my dad, nothing to do with the family, and everything to do with them seeing the church full of people, and this big crowd. They were motivated to perform rather than serve,” said Soaries.
Roberta Flack and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie pass a sign that flashed "We Will Always Love You" and "Whitney Houston" as they leave her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Perhaps because they’ve dealt with sycophants for so long, the Houston family seemed to give the microphone only to those who would focus on their “Nippy” and her faith in God.
“You paid a tremendous price in life,” Bishop T.D. Jakes told Houston’s family as he began his remarks. “You shared her with the world and we want to take a moment and say thank you.” Yes, thank you so much.
Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Costner said he fought for Houston to play the leading role in her first film, The Bodyguard, and talked about the insecurities that both made Houston great and contributed to her decline. He said insecurities like hers are not unique among the famous.
Media mogul Tyler Perry said there were two constants in his friend’s life: “a grace that carried” and her love for the Lord. Quoting from the Apostle Paul, he said neither the height of her fame nor the depth of her struggle could separate her from God’s love.
“What then say you to these things?” said Perry. “If God be for you who can be against you? God was for her and she is resting, singing with the angels.”
Soaries said it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of a deceased’s person’s life because “there is some redemptive value in every life” and because doing so “helps counter negative feelings and the negative imagery of the dead body.”
This week a reporter told Soaries that sources who knew Houston kept saying, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
“That’s poetry and, for some, it takes years for the morning to come,” he said. “There’s nothing in the Bible, either in verse or theology that suggests we get over death. Death is too unnatural. What the Bible promises is that God will help us get through it.”
In regard to Houston’s long struggle with drug addiction, Soaries told Piers Morgan that she “was surrounded by an environment of temptation” growing up and “had access to all kinds of things.”
“I would not condemn [ex-husband] Bobby Brown for Whitney’s struggles,” he said.
“I’m surprised to hear all these secular people talk about demons,” Soaries told me. “Once you claim Whitney or anyone was struggling against demons, then you have to understand that it’s not her struggle. All of us, therefore, are struggling against the demons that attack our vulnerabilities. When we are incapable of dealing with demons, that’s when God and God’s emissaries take control, which means that death for a Christian is deliverance from the attack; it’s not surrender to the attack.”
Houston’s struggle wasn’t unlike the struggles of a person who can’t afford to buy food, but buys lottery tickets every week, he said. “It’s the same problem … It’s not that drugs used by a superstar are any worse than gambling for someone on food stamps. Something attacks our vulnerability and causes us to behave in self-destructive ways.”
This is what journalists call the "coffin shot": Whitney Houston's casket being carried out of New Hope Baptist Church after her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Rev. Howard went further in his assessment of Houston’s decline. He believes that she, like so many exceptionally talented artists before her, succumbed to an “occupational hazard.”
“Talented people are somehow caught in a cycle of demand for their services without regard for their humanity,” said Howard. “I think it’s a dance between the artist’s temperament and their vanity or ego and their desire to remain on top in a very competitive business. I think there are people who are around them, who suck their blood, so to speak.”
I felt like one of those people yesterday, showing up as I did to photograph and report on her funeral. Around me journalists jockeyed for shots of her casket being loaded into a hearse and for the inside scoop on why Bobby Brown abruptly left soon after the funeral began. Like them I took the coffin shot and reported what sources inside were saying about Brown because that’s what the world wanted to see and know.
“What is the social madness? What is the social need that makes us virtually deadened to the family hurt and pain of this loss?” Howard asked. He would have liked to see Houston singing into her old age like Etta James (who died last month at 74 years old) did.
“[James] had her own struggles, but she managed somehow to pull out of this,” he said.
Perhaps the great lesson to be learned from Houston’s unlikely funeral is the one her family — rooted as it is in community, church, and gospel — taught us. Artists like her generously share their gifts with us. They don’t belong to us. They belong to the people who love and nurture them through the heights and the depths of their lives, and who send them home with grace when their battles are done.
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